One of America’s great documentarians, Robert Gardner (b. 1925) has remained committed to a fearsomely independent and uncompromising vision of the cinema throughout his long and prolific career. Gardner’s early films, such as Blunden Harbour, align with the tradition of poetic ethnographic cinema alternately pioneered by Robert Flaherty and the British filmmakers loosely grouped around John Grierson. In his first major works, such as Dead Birds, Gardner began to define his signature mode of lyrically classical documentary, equally distinguished by its rigorous yet nuanced structure and its often stunningly beautiful imagery, frequently shot by Gardner himself. Since his time as a graduate student of anthropology, Gardner has long been fascinated by ancient civilizations, tribal cultures and religions that together seem to describe an absolute “other” from the contemporary Western world. In celebrated films such as Forest of Bliss and Rivers of Sand, Gardner traveled to distant lands – here India and Ethiopia – to capture a distinct essence of the different cultures he studied while also evoking the texture of his own deeply personal experience. A devoted student of poetry, Gardner has an enduring interest in first person voices and in the nuances of language, which contributes to the richly textured voice-over narration frequently used in his films. Equally important as Gardner’s fascination with religious and cultural ceremonies is his abiding interest in art and the creative process, which has led him to direct an ongoing series of insightful and visually stunning “artist films.” Poetic in both their visual beauty and their structure, Gardner’s powerful cinematic essays document the human experience with a classicist’s eye for rhythm and framing and a deep compassion and understanding.
As a founder of the Harvard Film Archive and the founding director of the Film Study Center at Harvard, Gardner has exerted an immeasurable influence on the creation of the vibrant film community that continues to thrive here at Harvard and throughout the Greater Boston area. The Harvard Film Archive is honored to welcome back Robert Gardner for a celebration of his work and legacy, which includes a showcase of new work. This program coincides with the release of Gardner’s most recent book, Just Representations, a collection of journal entries written while working on films, anthropological essays and scripts of voiceover narrations from his films.